Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Non-ATB coordinations’ Category

Things You Can Put In, Sit Back, and Run

Posted by Neal on March 4, 2006

Returning, at last, to the three quotations in my last post, repeated below:

(Julie Andrews quotation)
Of course, I saw it a couple of times at various previews and things like that, but it’s not something that I actually put in, sit back and run.

(DGM quotation)
It’s just a bunch of embarrassingly juvenile scratchings about life as a hormonal 15-year old girl, meant only for me to look back on and cringe….

(George MacDonald Fraser quotation)
…perhaps terror lends wings to my wits, for when I think of the monsters I’ve conversed with and come away with a whole skin, more or less….

So what is it that these have in common? First of all, they all contain coordinated verb phrases. The Andrews example coordinates the VPs put in, sit back, and run. The DGM example coordinates the VPs look back on and cringe. The Fraser example coordinates the VPs conversed with and come away with a whole skin, more or less.

Second (as noticed by commenter ACW), one VP in each set of coordinated VPs isn’t missing a direct object or object of a preposition. In the Andrews example, the understood direct object of put in and run is something, but sit back is fine as it is, with no understood object. In the DGM example, the understood direct object of look back on is a bunch of embarrassingly juvenile scratchings about life as a hormonal 15-year old girl, but cringe doesn’t take a direct object. And in the Fraser example, the direct object of convsersed with is monsters, but come away with a whole skin doesn’t take a direct object.

Typically, if one out of a group of coordinated phrases is missing an object, that same object has to be missing from all of them (an observation made in an influential dissertation by J. R. Ross in 1967). For example, in the test that I didn’t study for but passed anyway, the understood object of both didn’t study for and passed anyway is test. And if you decide you’re only going to take an object out of one of the coordinated VPs, you could easily end up with questionable-at-best phrases like *the test that I didn’t study for and went out partying with my friends. Here, test is still the understood direct object of didn’t study for, but not for went out partying with my friends instead needs no direct object. So why do the Andrews, DGM, and Fraser quotations work?

A lot has been written about coordinations like these, but Andy Kehler I think synthesizes and sums it up best in chapter 5 of this book. The short answer is that it’s all about topics. If the coordinated phrases all concern the same topic, then that topic is eligible to be lifted out of any of those phrases it could appear in. This is most easily done when the topic serves as an object (or for that matter, the subject) in all the coordinated phrases, as in test I didn’t study for but passed anyway or the guy who didn’t study for the test but passed it anyway, but you can be staying on topic even if that topic doesn’t fill some role in each of the coordinated phrases. The key, as Kehler explains, is that the phrases have to be participants in some kind of “coherence relation.” The coherence relation in effect when the same object (or subject) is missing from each phrase is called Parallel, but there are others.

In the Andrews example, the relation is one Kehler calls Occasion. The topic is a video of The Sound of Music, and all the VPs describe a hypothetical situation of watching the video. Two of them involve actually doing something to it (putting it in, running it), and one just describes some action related to the other two–namely, sitting back, the action that chronologically connects the other two. So howcome this doesn’t work with the test I didn’t study for and went out partying with my friends? Because we never come back to the idea of the test, and as a result, the topic is not the test, but rather some more general concept, like “what I did last night.” But if turn the partying into just one more step in the story of taking the test, the coordination works:

*the test I didn’t study for and went out partying with my friends

the test I didn’t study for, went out partying with my friends, and passed anyway

And just as we can improve the test coordination, we can make the Andrews quotation ungrammatical, by taking away the last VP:

something I put in, sit back, and run.

*something I put in and sit back.

And we can make this next one ungrammatical, too, by putting the VP without a gap at the end instead of the front, and then make it grammatical again by adding one more phrase to maintain the topic:

no telling how many tears I’ve sat here and cried

*no telling how many tears I’ve cried and sat here

no telling how many tears I’ve cried, sat here, and then collected off the bartop with an eyedropper for chemical analysis

The DGM and Fraser quotations exemplify two other coherence relations, which I’ll get to in the next posting in this series.

Posted in Non-ATB coordinations, Semantics | 2 Comments »

Three Quotations

Posted by Neal on March 1, 2006

I’ve had this quotation written down in my memo book since November. It’s from Julie Andrews, talking about The Sound of Music, when an anniversary edition of it was released on DVD:

Of course, I saw it a couple of times at various previews and things like that, but it’s not something that I actually put in, sit back and run.
(“Actress sings praises of movie musical on anniversary DVD,” Ian Spelling, New York Times Syndicate, 13 Nov 2005)

It was recently joined by a line from blogger DGM (who has provided interesting linguistic material on other occasions). This comes from her Valentine’s Day posting, where she talks about a diary from her teenage years:

It’s just a bunch of embarrassingly juvenile scratchings about life as a hormonal 15-year old girl, meant only for me to look back on and cringe….

And only a few days ago, I came across this line in the Flashman novel that I’ve been reading:

…perhaps terror lends wings to my wits, for when I think of the monsters I’ve conversed with and come away with a whole skin, more or less….
(George MacDonald Fraser, Flashman on the March, p. 202)

When I added the last quotation to the first two, I said, “Hey, neat, now I have a set, with one of each kind!” What, you may ask, do the quotations have in common, while still being different enough to represent three different classes? Well, I don’t have time to write about it now, since it’s time to go watch the episode of Lost that just finished taping. (Oh, and I was right about there not being a new episode last week. Hosers.) I’ll write more tomorrow.

Posted in Non-ATB coordinations, Semantics | 4 Comments »

Country Coordinations, Part I

Posted by Neal on October 19, 2004

Before Semantic Compositions undertook a lengthy, five-post-long book review, he commented on a confusing coordination in a music-trivia question:

Join us as our Week in Review reveals what femme rocker’s concert was the target of a chainsaw protest in the Northwest and who swore off rock ‘n’ roll after getting religion.

SC took it to mean that the same rocker had a concert protested and got religion, but in fact, it was two different people (Bonnie Raitt and Little Richard). I commented, saying that the only parse I could get was the intended one, with the question “what femme rocker’s concert was…” coordinated with the question “who swore off….” However, I have to admit that it’s only my literal-mindedness that kept me on track–even now, when I read the sentence there’s a tendency, quickly overridden, to get SC’s interpretation. My suspicion is that it has to do with the fact that most things that are coordinated have something to do with each other. When they don’t, the coordination is a non-sequitur, like this example from a 1965 paper in Language by Lila Gleitman:

I wrote my grandmother a letter yesterday and six men can sit in the back seat of a Ford.

The coordinated music-trivia questions have nothing at all to do with each other, beyond being two pieces of music-related trivia. For the casual reader to impute the most likely relationship between them when they’re coordinated is understandable.

Soon after reading SC’s post, I heard Brooks & Dunn’s “Neon Moon” on the radio, and this line caught my attention:

No telling how many tears I’ve sat here and cried
or how many lies that I’ve lied

In academic English grammar, this coordination would be circled in red as a case of bad parallel structure. One of the coordinates, cried, is used as a transitive verb, whose direct-object slot is understood to be filled by tears. The other coordinate, though, is a verb phrase with nothing missing at all: sat here. Or to put it another way, you can say, “tears I’ve cried,” but you can’t say, “tears I’ve sat here.” When you coordinate them, though, it sounds pretty good. The song’s a nice rumba, too, though in the 90s people preferred to dance the “Cowboy Cha-Cha” to it.

There’s been quite a lot written about coordinations like these, and the most convincing analysis is that it’s, again, all about the coordinated elements being relevant to each other. Tears I’ve sat here and cried is OK, but *tears I’ve done the Cowboy Cha-Cha and cried isn’t. At least, not until you’ve established that there is some kind of a connection between crying and doing the Cowboy Cha-Cha.

I might as well finish this post with a couple of other of these coordinations that I’ve come across over the years:

“…its most important property, one that any theory of language must account for, or be discarded.
(Jeremy Campbell, Grammatical Man, 1982, p. 183)

Great. Now what am I going to watch and drink all day?
(character on Futurama, after losing his TV; thanks to Mike Daniels for this one)

Coming soon: My other favorite example of a weird coordination found in a country song!

Posted in Non-ATB coordinations, Semantics | 4 Comments »